At first it just seemed like a police shooting. There really is no such thing as just a police shooting, but given the week’s heartbreaks, the early-morning attack on Friday was yet more pain to add to a city that was sore from exhaustion. Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer Sean Collier, 26, was shot to death at 32 Vassar St., a dark road at night just off the train tracks where steam from the school’s mysterious laboratories rises ominously upward from various tubes and vents.
Despite the “creepiness” of the alleys, the area is usually very safe, said Trish Mara, 57, who lives a block away with her husband Michael Galasso. “We usually walk everywhere. We were walking home tonight from dinner across the river at about 10:40 [p.m.] when we saw three ambulances escorted by police cars speeding the other way,” Galasso, 59, said. Little did they know that one of those ambulances held Collier. Mara and Galasso were stunned by the police presence in their neighborhood. More than an hour later, the couple was still standing on the street shocked and a little in awe of the police response. “It makes me think it’s somehow related to the events on Monday,” said Galasso. “However unlikely that might be.”
Turns out, Galasso was right. Very little violence that night would be unrelated to the manhunt for brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who were exposed to the world just hours earlier by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as Suspect No. 1 and Suspect No. 2. The police would later tell reporters that the two had robbed a 7-Eleven and that footage of the crime had tipped police off to the fact that the bombing suspects the FBI was looking for were also behind the 7-Eleven holdup, Collier’s murder and a carjacking of a Mercedes SUV.
The carjacking gave authorities the edge they’d been looking for. They used the location device on the Mercedes to track the Tsarnaev brothers to Watertown. In an exceptional sight, dozens of police cars flooded Memorial and Storrow drives, which flank the Charles River heading west out of Boston. Blue flashing lights formed an almost solid streak of neon past Harvard and Boston University to Watertown, a suburb just west of Cambridge. At Watertown on Mt. Auburn Road, residents, many in their pajamas, were running down the street away from what they said was a battle of explosions and firefights “out of a [expletive] war zone,” said Shawn Bertulli, 28. “The explosions were like loud shotgun booms, but [expletive] bigger, man. Huge.”
Joanne St. Vil, 22, and her friend Alexandra LaLanne, 23, heard “two big booms right before 1 a.m. The second one there was a light in the sky, a flash,” St. Vil said. “There must have been 20 to 50 gunshots. Not fast, like an automatic, but bang, bang, bang.”
Yet the accounts differ. Some people heard one explosion, some two, others three. Larry Victor, 64, a Watertown dentist, was up late watching television. He first heard the sirens, but it was the explosions that drew him out of his house and up the street. There he heard a gun battle that ended around 1 a.m. “I heard two explosions, fairly quick — right next to each other, like, 30 seconds apart,” he said. “And then a third explosion a few minutes — maybe five minutes — later.”
The police quickly formed a barrier about two blocks from where the shootout had taken place on Laurel Street in Watertown. Dozens of residents lined Mt. Auburn Road in their robes and slippers, with dogs on leashes. As the police began to push people and journalists back a block, an explosion went off. “You hear that?” a cop said to the horde of media and onlookers. “That’s why you need to move back. It’s for your own safety.”
During the shootout, the brothers threw incendiary devices at the cops. One cop was shot and badly wounded in the exchange, Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority officer Richard Donahue, 33. It was then that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, was shot and killed. His younger brother Dzhokhar, 19, escaped on foot.
Residents were then trapped outside their homes. People returning from a night out found that they couldn’t enter their neighborhood. Hundreds more police came in from all directions. The later it got, the farther away the police officers hailed from: by 2:30 a.m. the Billerica police arrived from 15 miles away, and by 3 a.m. a Tewksbury K9 unit arrived from 25 miles away.
Watertown is a middle-class neighborhood, with a mix of professionals and working-class folks. Standing in the dark, neighbors watched wide-eyed as more and more police flooded their neighborhood. “I’ve never seen anything like this or even approaching this,” said Pedro Saavedra, 19, a Waltham native who followed the police in his car from MIT to Watertown just to watch the action. “It’s unbelievable that this is Boston, that this is Watertown.”
Helicopters flew overhead, though they avoided shining spotlights down on the neighborhood. SWAT teams, ambulances, fire trucks, Homeland Security, FBI and every conceivable type of police officer mustered in Watertown, cordoned off a 20-block area and began a house-to-house search for the younger Tsarnaev. By midday Friday, the prospect began to emerge that the manhunt could continue into a second night.